Petition website change.org has revolutionised the way activists campaign

The campaign site's British office has been open for a year and, despite having just a handful of staff, has made politicians - and tabloid editors - quake. Will Coldwell meets them

When Stacey Stafford found out that her disabled son was going to be taken out of his special needs school, she was close to despair. She had battled for a year and a half to persuade Glasgow City Council to send him to the school that she felt was best for him, fighting for a court order to gain him a place at a centre for children with cerebral palsy. Now it was in jeopardy.

"It was a horrible and stressful experience for me," she says. "I was facing another battle and I just felt angry." This time, however, she tried something different. She started a petition on change.org.

Within days, it had reached 4,000 signatures. Then the media started calling. Less than two weeks later, and with a total of 7,692 names on the petition, the council had backed down. "It was so quick," says Stafford. "I started it on a whim. I just wanted to make it uncomfortable for them. I didn't know what was going to happen."

Stories such as Stafford's stream thick and fast from the digital campaigns site. Change.org launched in the UK just over a year ago, having been founded in the US in 2007 by Stanford graduate and wannabe-investment banker turned do-gooder Ben Rattray. Rattray set up the site to help activists and as a way of mobilising people for change. Speaking to CNN Money, he explained that petitions were the simplest way of empowering people.

"Historically, it's one of the oldest tools in advocacy," he said. "It goes back hundreds of years to publicly add your name in support with others for change. What's different now is it's just dramatically easier than ever before to start petitions and spread them through social media."

Dramatically, cosmically, powerfully easier than laboriously collecting thousands of pen-and-ink signatures on paper before delivering them in a box to the powerful, as campaigners once had to do. The British version of the site has just hit a landmark three million users (there are 45 million worldwide). And it seems to work.

Every week, two change.org petitions in the UK claim a victory, whether they're lowbrow – there's currently someone petitioning Warner Brothers to remove Ben Affleck as Batman/Bruce Wayne in its forthcoming Batman film – or more socially aware – the man wanting to convince the International Olympic Committee to strip Sochi of the 2014 Winter Games.

From a small office by Old Street in east London, change.org has been a catalytic force behind many of the stories that have dominated the news agenda over the past 12 months. Caroline Criado-Perez's campaign to have the Bank of England put a woman on the new £10 note could perhaps be described as its flagship success, gaining 36,000 signatures and spilling into a national debate on the representation of women in the establishment, and then again into a highly emotive discussion about sexist abuse online.

Similarly, the current No More Page Three campaign, which has been championed by MPs such as Caroline Lucas, has more than 118,000 signatures and continues to make national news. Lucy Holmes, who started the petition, describes the site as "an incredibly powerful tool". "It's not just a petition site," she says. "Everyone who signs becomes an integral part of the campaign because the tools change.org offers mean we can update supporters, organise mini protests and read the reasons why people signed that petition."

The change.org team, which boasts people who have worked for the likes of 38Degrees, Oxfam and other high-profile charities and NGOs, is clear about what makes a successful campaign. "Petitions are just the start," says UK campaigns director Brie Rogers Lowery. "They have to have a compelling story, a tangible ask and be mobilising the people who sign it. Rarely is a petition just going to win on its own."

The team members act as facilitators, promoting petitions at the right moments to catch the media, and helping those who want to start petitions to frame them in the most effective way. They follow their online stats closely, sending out sample emails to gauge which petitions are catching. Their keen editorial eye helps generate campaigns that not only attract the attention of the media, but also engage the public who then go on to spread the petition through social media.

The backdrop to the site's rise in the UK is one of an increasing sense of disenfranchisement among voters after years of centre-ground politics, exacerbated by a coalition government grappling with a recession. Party politics seem increasingly irrelevant, leaving a space for passionate, single-issue campaigning to flourish.

Curiously, considering the site is intended to be for those without an existing platform, MP Nicola Blackwood started a petition on the site, calling for the Prime Minister to take action to stop child sexual exploitation online. Whether change.org will try to prevent MPs and other people in positions of power using it to start petitions in the future is uncertain, but for now the team sees it as an endorsement.

"The campaigns that really take off are about issues that affect people rather than political ideologies," says Lowery. "They cross political boundaries." Change.org's employees see themselves as brokers of social justice who amplify the frustration of otherwise voiceless individuals. When reacting to a news event, the team actively encourages individuals who may be affected by an issue to start a petition.

For example, a petition by 16-year-old Esha Marwaha asking Michael Gove to keep climate change on the curriculum resulted in her being invited for a meeting with the Department of Education. Subsequently, Gove dropped his plans to remove the subject.

"The companies and politicians that are going to be the most successful are the ones that respond," says Lowery. "If they back away, it's not going to be good for democracy and it's not going to be good for their customer base [or voters]. But if they engage with them and have a two-way dialogue, then that can be a fantastic opportunity."

To encourage this dialogue, change.org has developed a way for frequently lobbied individuals and organisations to create their own profile on the site. The "Decision Makers" feature is due to launch imminently, something the team hopes will lead to more victories, quicker responses and a shift in culture from those at the top, who currently are less likely to respond unless the issue has reached crisis level.

Richard Elsen has spent his career helping individuals and companies who find themselves at the wrong end of PR crises. Founder of the Byfield Consultancy and former deputy head of the Labour Party's "Rebuttal and Attack Unit" for the 1997 election, Elsen is well versed in polarised and aggressive campaigning. Change.org, he says, has altered how corporations and politicians react to crises. "Their petitions create noise that is difficult and dangerous to ignore," he says. "By being highly visible [they] have the potential in themselves to force rapid action, which often is uncomfortable for companies or politicians being targeted."

The petition that perhaps caused the most discomfort for a politician occurred this spring, calling for Ian Duncan Smith to live on £53 a week for a year. With almost 500,000 signatures, the simple petition forced a public debate about welfare reform on terms that were visibly embarrassing for the Work and Pensions Secretary. The petition was spawned from a Twitter exchange – musician Dom Aversano was discussing starting one on the No 10 site until John Coventry, change.org's communications director, suggested he use theirs instead. Within days, Aversano was giving television interviews.

"Change.org gives a voice to those who traditionally won't be considered part of the media," he says. "I don't see it as a solution to all problems, but it's taught me to try. If you do something that resonates with people it can be limitless."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
Young Winstone: His ‘tough-guy’ image is a misconception
people
Sport
Adnan Januzaj and Gareth Bale
footballManchester United set to loan out Januzaj to make room for Bale - if a move for the Welshman firms up
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer
filmIdris Elba responds to James Bond rumours on Twitter
Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
News
Outspoken: Alexander Fury, John Rentoul, Ellen E Jones and Katy Guest
newsFrom the Scottish referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones
film
News
i100
Sport
Yaya Sanogo, Mats Hummels, Troy Deeney and Adnan Januzaj
footballMost Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
News
Nigel Farage celebrates with a pint after early local election results in the Hoy and Helmet pub in South Benfleet in Essex
peopleHe has shaped British politics 'for good or ill'
Sport
Tim Sherwood raises his hand after the 1-0 victory over Stoke
footballFormer Tottenham boss leads list of candidates to replace Neil Warnock
Voices
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers
voicesIt has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
Arts and Entertainment
Roffey says: 'All of us carry shame and taboo around about our sexuality. But I was determined not to let shame stop me writing my memoir.'
books
News
Danielle George is both science professor and presenter
people
News
i100
News
Caplan says of Jacobs: 'She is a very collaborative director, and gives actors a lot of freedom. She makes things happen.'
people
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Accounts Administrator

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: PHP Web Developer

£30000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a Web Developer looking...

Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant- NY- Investment Bank

Not specified: Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant Top tier investment bank i...

Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executive- City of London, Old Street

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

Finally, a diet that works

Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

Say it with... lyrics

The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

The joys of 'thinkering'

Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

Monique Roffey interview

The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

How we met

Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

Who does your club need in the transfer window?

Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

Michael Calvin's Last Word

From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015